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Sarah Maine Recommends The Best Books to Read in the Hebrides

Posted on 1st December 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Sarah Maine, the author of our Scottish Book of the Year for 2018, The House Between the Tides discusses the wild beauty and dark undercurrents of the Hebrides and recommends her favourite reading inspired by this remarkable landscape.

At the core of The House Between Tides is an obsession. Theo Blake, a youthful and intemperate  painter, endures an obsessive love for a woman he cannot have, but he is sustained by an equally powerful passion for his Hebridean home. Throughout his life the  island landscapes and seascapes inspire his paintings  and the place provides him with a refuge to which he is repeatedly drawn. This, in essence, is what the Hebridean islands are for me, an inspiration and a refuge, and a very special place. As a child I was taken every year to the Isle of Arran and that must have been when my own love of Scotland’s west coast and islands began. Apart from a gap during teenage years in Canada I have been going there ever since, with my own family or solo, and it has becomes an essential part of every year. 

It is very easy to romanticise about the Hebrides, especially in a spring like this one just past when day after day produced blue skies, emerald seas and views of a rocky coast and white shell-sand beaches. At such times it is heart-stoppingly beautiful, as both Beatrice, (Theo’s bride), and Hetty, the modern protagonist in The House between Tides were to discover. But the Hebrides have another side to them. Angus, our landlord, talks of vicious autumn gales which  rip roofs off houses and long dark winter nights when emerald green seas turn grey and menacing. This is part of  Hebridean life too and Beatrice and Hetty, in their different ways, discover these darker threads which run deep below the surface. Peter May’s The Lewis Trilogy take place  in the western isles, and Anne Cleeves Shetland series, set in the northern isles,  explore a grimmer  side of modern island life with its complex networks of kinship, and a long collective memory.  

And the islands have a bleak past. Throughout the 19th century crofters were thrown off their land to make way for larger farms and  sheep, or were driven onto the shore when the kelp harvest ceased to be profitable, forcing families  into unwilling exile. James Hunter’s account of these events is brilliantly told in his book A Dance called America, the title referring back to one of the earliest accounts of island life, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, written by James Boswell in the 18th century. In this he describes a new dance, called America, which he witnessed where one by one the dancers leave the dance and symbolically, their island homes. A Dance called America was also used as the title for a successful, and emotive, hit by the Hebridean band Runrig in the 1980s which explores this same theme. The conflict between landowner and tenant, and between profit and people, has a long and painful history,  and that theme runs through The House Between Tides, still resonating into the present day.  

Today the islands are wonderful places to go to recharge the batteries and regain a sense of balance where there is space for ideas to grow. But these are fragile places with shrinking populations and what is precious is easily destroyed. In Bella Pollen’s book, The Summer of the Bear, a bereaved woman and her family take their own refuge in the Hebrides and uncover a potent threat to what they value there. Hetty, in The House between Tides, comes from another world, a London world, and initially does not realise how her plans for the future of the island would destroy it. It is only when bones are uncovered in Theo Blake’s abandoned house, and the story unfolds, that she begins to understand the consequences  of what she is planning,  and slowly she falls under the island’s seductive spell.

‘It’s the big skies and wide horizons,’ Beatrice said, a hundred years earlier as she sat on a white sand beach beside a fire which had been kindled,  not knowing then that the embracing of freedom was to come at a cost.  

And it is that sense of freedom which draws me there, year after year, to a place where there is space to think, time to take stock and above to appreciate the special timeless beauty of remote, and precious, places.


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